The 27th Annual Capital Jazz Festival beckoned thousands of music lovers to the Merriweather Post Pavilion at Symphony Woods in Columbia, MD. The outdoor venue features two stages: The Pavilion Stage, the main stage, is open-air but has a roof, which is indispensable when it rains, which it often does; The Symphony Woods Stage is completely open air, with no protection from the elements.
Folks gather in the park to listen to top jazz, soul and R&B musicians and to experience the friendly vibe that is an integral part of the fest.
Saturday Main Stage
Young contemporary jazz/soul artist Kandace Springs, a singer/pianist, cooed through smooth jazz versions of “Don’t Need the Real Thing,” and was followed by Gerald Albright with special guest Selina Albright.
On their heels, came songstress Regina Belle, who appeared last year and stole the festival doing duets with Anita Baker. This time around Belle did her own hits, and included a tribute to Baker, her mentor: “I believe you send them flowers while they’re still alive.”
She proved her love and admiration with her rendition of “You Bring Me Joy.” Sounding good, but not as spectacular as last year, Belle also paid homage to Ella Fitzgerald with a very jazzed version of “Mr. Paganini.” During her act, the singer had a heart-to-heart talk with the audience: “Y’all seen these shoes right? OK. I’m taking them off.” And with that she peeled off her pumps on stage as one very funny audience member called it a “shoe-i-cide;” the death of a tight pair of shoes.
Next on tap was a tribute to Aretha Franklin called “Something She Can Feel.” The band leader introduced the surprise singers on the roster and the excitement never died down: Maysa did a sassy version of “Respect;” Leela James, who’d appeared earlier in the day on Symphony Stage, launched a supreme blues-powered cover of “Dr. Feelgood.” She blasted, “I don’t’ want nobody, Always, Sittin’ around me and my man…” It was enough to make Aretha turn over in her grave—sit up and clap; Ann Nesby belted out “Think;” Will Downing cruised through “Daydreaming.” Then Phil Perry did a show-stealing, jazzy and earthy rendition of Aretha’s “Call Me.” For the finale, everyone rocked out to “ Freeway of Love.”
India.Arie was next on the evening roster. Her band came on 30 minutes late, and she complained that she didn’t have enough time to do the whole show she’d been touring with. Arie called her act a “Songversation,” and told the crowd she would sing, they would sing along too, and a video would play in the background. Her concept was inventive, but tedious. She tried melting hearts with a brief prayer: “We are not 3,000 [people] tonight we are one…” She meant well, but was following a rabble-rousing Aretha tribute. Cooling things down to a self-healing, preachy diatribe seemed a touch too Oprah-like for the occasion.
Leave it to jazz-singer-extraordinaire, and the main act, Gregory Porter to put the evening back on track. He opened his set with the popular song “Holding On,” which he originally recorded with the electronic pop duo Disclosure, before he did his own version: “Weights of love on my shoulder. I thought that it would be easier than this… Though my past has left me bruised, I ain’t hiding from the truth… Won’t you help me my father. Help me fall in the love I have missed.” If India.Arie had left a cloud over the festivities, it was lifted by a professional musician whose demeanor, strong voice and intriguing interpretations of his songs are the best in the jazz industry.
Porter proved that even more, when he did the very humble and spiritual ballad “Take Me to the Alley,” a song he wrote that was inspired by his mom who would drive around town looking for people who needed food and deliver meals to them. His band’s saxophone wailed into the night, the piano player tickled the ivories with abandonment, the organist’s hands moved like silk over the keyboards, and Porter gave the best performance of the entire festival.
Sunday Main Stage
The main stage featured Isaiah Sharkey, then The Baylor Project, and legendary Norman Brown with special guest artist Lindsey Webster. They warmed the crowd up for the supremely talented soul singer, Phil Perry.
Perry walked on stage like the Pope coming for a visit. You knew there would be magic. He hit the ground running with a very jazzed and up-tempo cover of the 1980 Christopher Cross song “Ride Like the Wind.” You recognized the tune from the git go, but Perry singing a pop song and adding his stylish brand of vocal gymnastics to it brought it up to a whole new level.
After settling down a bit and, slowing the tempo of his show, he said, “This song is pertinent to today,” and launched into “People Make the World Go Around,” not like the Angela Bofill version, closer to the original Stylistics one: “Trashman didn’t get my trash today. Why? Because they want more pay.” Then he grooved into the Spinners classic, “I’ll Be Around,” as if to say he would always be there for his fans.
The audience was primed for jazz/pop chanteuse Patti Austin. Her band started first. She walked out on the stage singing the Quincy Jones-produced song “Razzamatazz.” Unfortunately, the sound system was off, the band too loud, Austin couldn’t hear her notes and was singing off key. Instead of continuing, she yelled, “STOP. If there are children in here, please cover their ears. I CAN’T HEAR SHIT!” The audience howled with laughter and the sound engineer made some corrections. Austin handled the tech difficulties like a pro, finally able to sing the opening song: “Don’t believe those clouds in the sky, ‘Cause they’ll be moving on and the sun will shine…” It couldn’t have been more appropriate.
She wistfully announced that she was including a tribute to her singing buddy, James Ingram. The audience applauded. Patti said: “He can hear you. If there’s a heaven, he’s there, creating mischief.” Then in the sweetest voice, which has stood the test of time, she sang their hits, “Come to Me” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.”
Meanwhile the funk train pulled into the station on Symphony Woods stage. George Clinton: The Farewell Tour featuring Parliament/Funkadelic rolled in bringing the funk and laying it down thick as molasses with classic Clinton tunes like “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and “Mothership Connection.”
Back on the main stage, Kem, the final performer of the festival, began his show. It started with his larger than expected band, three back-up singers and two skimpily clad female dancers. Kem appeared on stage gyrating his hips like a romantic soul singer playing to the females in the audience, a la Teddy Pendergrass or D’Angelo. Hard to believe he was the sensitive vocalist who crooned jazzy ballads like “Say” and “Love Calls.” He’d morphed into a Romeo.
Things quieted down when he acknowledged the passing of Al Jarreau, and created a jazzier vibe: Kem lamented, “When I think of Al Jarreau, he was my dude. We never had the chance to work together on an album. But Al said if we ever did, we would call the album ‘AlKemy’.” The audience giggled. Now Kem had them in the palm of his hands: the women, the jazz lovers and those who like it when artists respect the musicians who came before them. His jazz hit “Matter of Time” followed along with other songs.
Kem really communed with the audience when he recognized their musical leanings: “This is grown folks’ music. Music that takes you back to the first time you heard the O’Jays, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Patti, Luther, Grover…”
The nostalgia hit the audience like a ton of bricks. It was an acknowledgement that time has passed, our memories are sacred and he was here to preserve them. This coming from a very special singer whose voice sounds like a muted trumpet and whose true gift is that he’s an extraordinary jazz musician.
Kem’s final, humble words were touching: “God called us here to be with you tonight.” The audience felt it during his act and throughout the festival. That’s the spiritual and jazzy feeling that has kept them coming back to the fest for 27 years.